by Michael Haehnel
When I was a boy I wished things were different. I wanted my dad to join the Mormon Church so our family could be sealed in the temple. The main tension in our home was Dad wanting us to be less involved in the Church and Mom trying to simulate the Mormon experience as much as possible. The way I saw it, the kids whose entire families were members were lucky.
Now, looking back over the sixty-three years of my life, I realize I was the lucky one. “Count your blessings; name them one by one”:
- Living in a part-member family meant I was spared from the surround-sound Mormon experience. All Mom’s efforts were focused on just getting to church and carrying out pared-down family prayers and home evenings. She never got around to worrying about the evils of homosexuality.
- Growing up in the rural northeast meant that I was the only active Mormon in my class. These were the liberal Sixties and I attended a liberal high school. Some homophobia, sure, but nothing white-knuckle or fire-and-brimstone about it.
- Attending a small branch of mostly converts, church did not run like a well-oiled machine. Our branch president, poor man, had his hands full trying to herd a disparate group of people whose Mormonism was more an amplification of their pre-Mormon passions than a cohesive religious experience. Once again, no time for cautionary sermons from The Miracle of Forgiveness.
As I recognized I was attracted to guys, I was left on my own to figure out what it meant. I was pretty sure my predilection wasn’t ideal, but I had no reason to believe it was fatal.
“Count your many blessings; see what God hath done”:
My father never insisted that I do manly things. I didn’t do sports, and no one cared. I helped Mom in the kitchen, and that was okay. Dad had already figured out that I had zippo interest in working on cars, so he left me alone as far as that went.
My high school class was large enough that it accommodated a range of “in” groups. I stuck with those who didn’t go out for sports, who preferred things like choir, drama, and math club. A unique aspect of my particular class was that the different social clusters tended to regard each other with a live-and-let-live attitude. Oh sure: there were some labels and put-downs, but those were more the exception than the rule.
While I had my friends, I was fine being alone as well. I’m a classic introvert, so fitting in wasn’t a priority for me. This was New England, land of hills and streams, dense woodlands and wilderness full of wildlife. Going on a walk in nature to clear my head and nurse my imagination was all I needed most of the time.
In short, when it came to sorting out what it meant to be gay, the universe spread out a wide room for me to explore. I had no idea how lucky I was.
For all that, I still ended up internalizing unhealthy attitudes toward my sexuality and identity. The wind blew in a certain direction at church, and I sensed the drift. The jokes kids told at school carried their subtexts, which I decoded. I managed to inhale homophobia despite the relatively unpolluted environment of my upbringing.
By the time I was fifty, distrust of self overtook me and strangled out all hope for happiness. Luckily, a dramatic change of circumstance opened the door to my coming out. It took six or seven years to shed the choking vines of internalized homophobia; but, eventually, I emerged new, arms wide to embrace my life.
And I thank my lucky stars.
What if I had grown up in a fully Mormon home, born under the covenant, with parents steeped in generations of Mormon culture? What if I had been pressured to act thus and so to prove I was a man? What if I had felt compelled to go to any length to fit in with the crowd?
Unluckily, there are hundreds and thousands who can answer those what-ifs from lived experience. If my relatively mild case of internalized queer-phobia almost brought me down, what of those among us engulfed in much more dire conditions?
My God, my God, there is more hurt than hearts can imagine. My God, we have to be gentle with each other. We are all walking wounded.
Even the lucky ones.